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Real and Imaginary Travels 16th-18th centuries

Anne Bandry-Scubbi
Rémi Vuillemin

Travelling,Trade and Identity

“New Sources of Wealth and New Channels of Commerce”

The Economic Dimensions of Mungo Park’s. Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799)

Nora Plesske


Chargé par l’Association pour la découverte des districts intérieurs de l’Afrique de localiser le fleuve Niger, Mungo Park, par la relation de sa mission dans Travels in the Interior of Africa (Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique, 1799), n’a pas seulement établi une référence pour la littérature de voyage à venir, mais a aussi donné par son périple en terra incognita une impulsion cruciale à l’exploration systématique du continent. Pour souligner l’importance de la dimension économique dans le récit de voyage de Park, l’on étudie la dépendance de l’explorateur à l’égard du commerce, ses rapports sur l’activité commerciale dans la région, ainsi que l’influence de son œuvre sur les explorations coloniales à venir et sur l’exploitation de l’Afrique occidentale. Tant les négociations liées aux échanges culturels que la formation d’une hégémonie impériale sont ainsi mises en évidence.

Texte intégral

  • 1 In 1788, American John Ledyard tried to travel to the Niger from Cairo but accidentally poisoned hi (...)

1At the end of the eighteenth century, the interior of Africa was still unknown, appearing as a fascinating void on European maps. The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Districts of Africa, founded in 1788, endeavoured to improve the knowledge of African geography and markets. One of its foremost objectives was to solve the question of the Niger River. In 1795, the twenty-four-year old Scotsman Mungo Park set off from the West Coast of Africa, commissioned by the association to ascertain the course, direction, source, and terminus of the river and to visit the principal town of Timbuktu. Although Park never reached the fabled city and was only able to map a relatively short stretch of the Niger’s course, the journey was nevertheless deemed successful because he was the first explorer to return alive.1

  • 2 The following references to Mungo Park’s Travels will be abbreviated as T.
  • 3 On the complex and dynamic interplay of author, publishers, and readers with regard to Park’s trave (...)

2Mungo Park’s account of his journey in Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa Performed under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (1799) became an instant success with the reading public.2 It was a bestseller, not least because of its modest and unpretentious author, his unprejudiced and differentiated observation of African cultures, as well as the simplicity and elegance of his style of writing (Bode, 2009: 165, 177; Marsters, 2000: 16; Waites, 2002: VII).3 The travel narrative both delighted and instructed, pleasing the public and the professionals alike. On the one hand, “dull” scientific details, which attested to Park’s credibility, were provided in an additional essay by England’s leading geographer, James Rennell (Marsters, 2000: 18). Park also interspersed the adventure narrative with informational sections, for example, an ethnological classification of the people on the Gambia and a historical account of regional conflicts. On the other hand, despite the general armchair traveller’s craving for sensational tales, he avoided exaggerations by suffusing his story with humour and omitting several personal experiences (Marsters, 2000: 20-23). Overall, Park familiarised European readers with an unknown continent, his Travels set a standard for future travel writers, and the trip paved the way for further systematic explorations throughout Africa.

3Lately, Park’s travelogue generated new interest with Mary Pratt’s extensive examination of the Travels in her paradigmatic book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturalism (1992). She detects “the non-hero of an anti-conquest” in the combination of Park’s subjective response to Africa, his non-interventionist presence and his passive endurance (Pratt, 2010: 77). Anti-conquest is defined as “strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony” (9). Bringing in such a dimension of sentimental travel literature, according to Pratt, obscures the dominating goals of imperialism by establishing reciprocity, namely an “equilibrium through exchange” (78).

  • 4 In 1803, Park was invited to lead a second expedition from the Gambia to the Niger. Setting off in (...)

4While I agree with Pratt on the initial imperialist goals of these geographical explorations, I support Christoph Bode’s argument that Park does not conceal the economic objectives of his Travels (Bode, 2009: 187). At the beginning of the text, the explorer credits himself not only for his geographical but also commercial feats stating that he hopes to “succeed in rendering the geography of Africa more familiar to [his] countrymen, and in opening to their ambition and industry new sources of wealth, and new channels of commerce” (T: 2). Although Park does not include the full goals of the African Association and his biography suggests that he exaggerated his devotion to commerce for his employers, he eventually seems to have accepted the capitalist interests of the association (Haddad, 2001: 140-141): two main chapters are devoted exclusively to commercial aspects and the numerous references to trade throughout the narrative reveal that Park was more than conscious of the economic relevance of his trip. Moreover, he might not have located himself in the economy managed by European mercantile imperialists, but with his primary goal of exploration and his will to lead a second government-funded expedition to the Niger, he directly advertised commercial objectives which were inextricable from British imperialism, thereby becoming complicit in the empire of trade.4

5In order to analyse the imperial mission of Park’s travelogue more critically, the present contribution therefore stresses the importance of the economic aspects in the narrative. It first scrutinises the explorer’s personal dependence on trade and exchange during the journey. Park’s recordings of commerce in the region are then addressed, particularly taking into account his assessment of the slave trade. Finally, the larger context of Britain’s evolving free trade imperialism is dealt with, by considering the influence of Park’s text on colonial exploration and exploitation of Africa during the nineteenth century. The overall contention is that the economic dimensions of colonial travel writing lay bare both the processes of cultural exchange and the developing rhetoric of British imperialism.

The Explorer’s Dependence on Trade

6Like many explorers before him, Mungo Park depended on established trade routes and relied on local traders. In May 1775, he sets sail from Portsmouth. on the Endeavour, a trading vessel for bees wax and ivory in the Gambia, arriving one month later at the British slave trading station Pisania (T: 2-6). After having learned the Mandingo language, collected information about the country, observed the customs of the natives and acquainted himself with local produce, Park leaves for the “unknown interior” with two native servants (T: 6-12). Of course, he neither advances into untrodden territory nor is he entirely on his own during the trip: in the beginning, he joins a company of slave merchants returning home and later he is guided by locals, follows a group of war refugees, and accompanies trading coffles (T: 25, 65, 172, 204).

7Surprisingly, however, Park only takes two days’ worth of provisions and his personal effects are similarly scarce: two shotguns, two compasses, one sextant, a thermometer, a medicine chest, a brimmed hat, an umbrella, a blue dress coat, one Malacca cane, and Richardson’s Arabic Grammar (T: 25; Bode, 2009: 168). As trading goods, he only brings six pieces of cloth, thirty-six ounces of amber, ninety pounds of tobacco, and twenty pounds of beads (Lupton, 1979: 46). It is assumed that Park was advised to travel light because the death of Major Daniel Houghton, the explorer who had gone on the same route before him, was ascribed to the excessive amount of merchandise he carried (Marsters, 2000: 2; Waites, 2002: XII). However, in addition to lodgings and provisions, Park also has to secure guides, bearers, and transportation (T: 30-35, 65-66, 82-83). But his lack of trading goods creates another problem: as the purpose of his journey did not lie in trafficking, Park expected to be exempt from the taxes levied on merchants (T: 28). Instead, customs on European manufactured goods had to be paid when entering the jurisdiction of a new town (T: 30). When this was not the case, Park was forced to part with presents to local rulers and their administrators (T: 71-72). Sometimes this exchange of gifts was part of a ceremony of peaceful transaction (T: 46-50), yet Park often records that these offerings were bribes and a measure of protection (T: 79, 103). Wihtout these, he frequently became a victim of strip-searches and robbery (T: 61, 105).

8Haddad shows how Park’s privileging the notion of private property enforces his economically-driven vision of social values (125). Park explains the “pilfering disposition” of black Africans by the “strength of temptation” exerted by the value of European goods: “some part of my effects were of as great value in the estimation of the Negroes as pearls and diamonds would have been in the eyes of a European” (T: 243). While he argues in favour of the Africans’ generally good nature, he pronounces the Moors “one of the vainest and proudest, and perhaps most bigoted, ferocious, and intolerant nations on the earth” with a “disposition towards cruelty and low cunning” (T: 146-147), as inhospitable, indolent, and plundering infidels (T: 53, 115). When he is taken captive by Ali, the Moorish chief of Ludamar, he has already been dispossessed of half of his property (Bode, 2009: 168-169; Haddad, 2001: 127-128). But there, the remainder of his goods and clothes are extorted from him (T: 116-117). After four months of severe suffering, Park eventually escapes by exchanging his coat for freedom which literally takes the last shirt off his back (T: 157-158). He gives away his last brass buttons and is forced to resort to begging food (T: 168, 178, 182).

9During his journey, Park thus becomes increasingly dependent upon the charity of African villagers (T: 61, 181, 207; Haddad, 2001: 139). Towards the end of his narrative, the vagrant/explorer acknowledges the help and sympathy from poor African peasant women (T: 243-244). Against these sentimental notions of dispossession and disempowerment one has to stress that Park also receives payments from the business partners of John Laidley, the British slave trader at Pisania, and thus acts as a semi-official debt-collector (T: 75, 78, 103-104). Moreover, Park’s comments on the progressive “loss” of his trading goods due to “forced” exchange reveal how much he initially counted on the hospitality of local kings, alkaids, or dootys. This shows a certain expectation on Park’s behalf of being welcomed as a superior guest in their country.

10Park’s foreignness and whiteness indeed often allow him to practice “epistemological commerce” (Juengel, 2006: 29). As whiteness was discerned as signalling commercial ventures, the white stranger Park is incidentally perceived as both rich and powerful, and remunerated accordingly. For example, one dooty pays respect to Park by killing a sheep: “[S] o proud was our landlord of the honour of entertaining a white man, that he insisted on my staying with him and his friends until the cool of the evening of the next day” (T: 107). While still solvent, he is presented with a white bullock by the king of Kaarta (T: 77); later, dispossessed of all his goods, Park receives 5,000 cowries by the king of Ségou (T: 183); finally destitute, the fact of being a white man secures him safe passage back to the coast (T: 234-235). Park is seen as a curiosity and becomes a spectacle in the places he passes through (Juengel, 2006: 25; Pratt, 2010: 79). His whiteness particularly catches the eye of women: the seraglio of the king of Bondou enquires into the artificiality of his skin colour and his prominent nose (T: 49). Similarly, in Ali’s camp, where Park is held captive on the excuse that the queen desires to see him, the women ask him to undress in order to inspect his white skin, count his fingers, and ascertain that he is circumcised (T: 111, 121-124). Park even sells himself as magic (Marsters, 2000: 4): he trades a lock of his hair as a most “precious merchandise” (T: 171-172) and exchanges white, more powerful, charms (T: 190).

11For Mary Pratt, these moments of encounter constitute examples of reciprocity (78). She argues that Park does not aim to encroach on local commerce by trading for his own profit and that, in fact, the robbing of his goods reverses racial polarities (81). By ways of “reciprocal vision” (80), women become the agents of viewing Park and their aggressive voyeurism feminises him in the process. His relational approach to culture, in the sense that he does not ridicule what he calls superstitions, offers opportunities for critical self-questioning (81-82). Hence, according to Pratt, all these

expansionist commercial aspirations idealize themselves into a drama of reciprocity. Negotiating his way across Africa, Park is the picture of the entrepreneur. Yet the decidedly non-reciprocal momentum of European capitalism can scarcely be discerned in his lone and long-suffering figure […]. Trade he does, but never for profit. Over and over the reader sees European commodities produce symbolic exchange and subsistence. (Pratt, 2010: 79)

12Pratt argues that reciprocity, namely the equilibrium through exchange, characterizes the commercial expansion in whose name Park travelled and eventually comes to question the innocent pursuit of knowledge (79-81). Although I accept Pratt’s overall notion of trade as a precursor of imperialism, I have to agree with Bode’s critique of Pratt: the traveller neither endeavours moments of exchange, nor are these univocally reciprocal (Bode, 2009: 185). Park’s representations of his personal dependence on commerce described above suggest that the travel writer eventually claims either economic or moral supremacy.

13The hegemonic structures on this contact zone, despite all practices of exchange and trade, are deeply entrenched in the value system of the travelogue’s author. A contemporary of the Scottish Enlightenment, the explorer’s largest profit lies in gaining knowledge. An intrinsic element of a civilised society, it has more value than mere personal perseverance. This can particularly be detected in his attitude towards literacy and property, through which Park displays his position of white dominance. Wise analyses Park’s comments on the bartering values of books and the commodification of writing and shows how the travel writer falls prey to cultural misrecognition in denigrating “Moorish literacy” and underlining “Negro illiteracy” (T: 16, 139, 147, 258-259, 291-293; Wise, 2001: 180-184). This ties in with Park’s aforementioned notion of property, in the sense that the “Moors” are prone to plundering and the “Negroes” tempted by European manufactures. Property, material objects, and trade goods define the essence of European masterfulness. Park captures how the slave trader, Karfa, upon seeing the trading post in Pisania, plainly acknowledges the value of British manufacturing, technology, and civilisation: “Black men are nothing” (T: 333; Haddad, 2001: 130; Marsters, 2000: 25). Conversely, Park asserts “white values” in the beginning of his journey: “I had […] before me […] a country, the inhabitants of which were strangers to civilised life, and to most of whom a white man was the object of curiosity or plunder” (T: 28). In this way, the explorer’s journey establishes further desire for European merchandise, while simultaneously asserting British superiority.

14Unsurprisingly, on his second state-funded military mission in 1805, Mungo Park leaves with lavish funds and presents for African kings, such as silver, coral, amber, guns, gunpowder, liquor, and cloth (Park, 1805: n. pag.). This time, his explicit mission is to expand British trade and prove that it is possible to transport goods to the river without falling prey to robbery. Consequently, African rulers’ recurrent suspicion that Park might be a spy because he travels without an interest in material gain proves perfectly correct (T: 47-48, 67, 184; Bode, 2009: 169; Haddad, 2001: 126-127; Marsters, 2000: 3). On his first trip, Park often employed commercial exchange as a means of opening communication channels and collecting information from traders on the lay and produce of the land, the further course of the Niger eastwards, and the city of Timbuktu (T: 128-129, 196-200). What Pratt reads as reciprocity through exchange consequently has to be classified as barter for (geographical and economic) knowledge. Because the search for the river only constitutes a preliminary step to trading, Park is initially involved in mercantile espionage under the auspices of the African Association (Haddad, 2001: 141; Marsters, 2000: 3). In this respect, a later assistant on an exploration to Timbuktu records the—retrospectively somewhat ironically correct—diffident reaction of the Congolese: “What then come for? only [sic!] to take walk and make book?” (Jackson qtd. in Wise, 2001: 189). In correlation with the high value of literacy mentioned, Park’s travel account actually demonstrates a first stage in taking possession of Africa by acquiring knowledge.

Records of Commerce in Western Africa

15At the beginning of his Travels, Park comments that he “had a passionate desire to examine into the productions of a country so little known, and to become experimentally acquainted with the modes of life and character of the natives” (T: 1). Thereby, the explorer summarises his devotional fulfilment of the instructions set before him by the African Association (T: 3). The full instructions are almost identical with those for Houghton and encompass a list of information to be obtained (Lupton, 1979: 39; Marsters, 2000: 33-38): (1) the distance between cities, their fortification, buildings, governments, and administration, (2) the culture, religion, language, and manners of peoples, and (3) economic aspects. The latter enumerate (a) regulations of property, (b) the revenue of the state including taxes and merchandise, (c) agriculture, especially, the cultivation of grains and the status of mechanisation, (d) trade, such as means of measurement, articles of manufacture, as well as imports and exports, (e) the specific deposit and collection of gold, (f) the definite outline of the Niger (Hallett, 1965: 122-127). Park diligently follows these instructions, offering a detailed account of the geography and giving a thorough report of the African population, their culture and industry.

16Thus, one could argue that his travel serves as a “cartographic alibi” (Juengel, 2006: 23) for cultural exchange, while he “innocently” takes possession of the land with his writing. However, I follow Bode’s objection of Pratt’s assertion that the text does not feature any landscape description at all and that the author never alludes to the commercial project of his narrative (Bode, 2009: 186). For example, chapters twenty and twenty-one extensively chart the climate, botany, natural resources, animal life, as well as disposition, customs, professions, and commercial ventures of the people (T: 239-278). Apart from that, Park devotes lengthy passages to descriptions of the countryside, minutely describing the layout and fertility of the land, its main raw materials, produce, and objects of trade (T: 28-30, 167-168).

17Already in the introductory chapter, Park acquaints the reader with the rich produce of the country (T: 3-7). He does not stop at merely naming products like grains, cotton, indigo, but again and again engages in their processing or preparation, especially of the shea nut (T: 22, 186-187, 326). His observations are proof of a combined scientific and commercial interest in botany (Marsters, 2000: 11). Park’s benefactor, founding member of the African Association and president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, particularly promoted botanical imperialism, such as the breadfruit transplanted to the West Indies or the tea plant exported to Ceylon. Park himself hints at the possibility of “improving the bounties of nature” in Africa by the “industry of civilised man” (T: 241), as exemplified in the Caribbean. Moreover, he compares the country of the Senegambia, especially along the rivers, to the green and fertile pastures of the English landscape, and hence rates its cultivation as extremely profit-yielding (T: 41, 175, 186, 306, 323).

18In regard to the other economic aspects asked for by the association, Park’s Travels is replete with information on the operations of commerce and the regulations of trade. He defines money and trade in terms of exchange value, carefully registers the major trading goods, such as dyed cotton, rock salt, gold, slaves, describes towns of considerable commercial activity, and comments on measures of taxation and credit (T: 4, 30, 52, 57, 143, 178-180, 219-220, 272; Haddad, 2000: 142; Marsters, 2000: 4; Waites, 2002: XIII). Overall, Park paints an image of a highly organised political, judicial, and economic system in Western Africa (Marsters, 2000: 3). Africans are depicted as an industrious people and masters of rudimentary technology (Ayandele, 1971: 11; Bode, 2009: 177). Hence, they are affirmed as good trading collaborators for Europeans, yet their state of development also outlines potential for further improvement through the means of mechanical advancement and colonisation (T: 277).

19There had long been contact with goods and knowledge from Europe, particularly in the coastal regions. Pisania, the British station where Park stayed on for five months, is exemplary for the advantageous Euro-African commerce that concentrated mainly on ivory, gold, and, of course, slaves (T: 6, 12). In chapter twenty-one, Park particularly expands on the acquisition and trade of ivory and gold. He remarks on Africans’ misconception of the former’s value: “Although they are shown knives with ivory hafts, combs, and toys of the same material [… t] hey suspect that this commodity is more frequently converted in Europe to purposes of far greater importance, the true nature of which is studiously concealed from them” (T: 272-273). One bar of European merchandise, such as firearms, ammunition, ironware, or manufactures, can be exchanged for a pound of the luxury good (T: 276). Concerning gold, Park reports the conversion of the metal into ornaments for women or its use as a trading good for salt (T: 266). He comments on the considerable quantities that are washed along the rivers of the Senegambia, mainly however in form of small grains or dust (T: 266-267). He suspects an El Dorado in the hills where even an even larger amount could be obtained with the assistance of European technologies (T: 270). Consequently, this chapter capitalises on the insatiable hunger of British merchants to expand the informal empire.

20Furthermore, a central focus of Park’s elaborations lies on West African slavery and the slave trade (T: 19-22). Since the Royal African Company established a monopoly on slave trade towards the end of the seventeenth century, it became an institutional element of colonial rule and the epitome of eighteenth-century mercantile practices. However, Park’s travelogue is witness of moral ambiguities. On the one hand, the Scottish explorer knowingly participates in the slavery-based economic system (Haddad, 2001: 131). During his journey, Park is particularly indebted to two slavers (Waites, 2002: XVIII): he begins and ends his exploration with the help of the main British slave trader on the river Gambia and owes his life to the Muslim slave trader Karfa Taura (T: 6, 234, 330). Park not only joins Karfa’s coffle of slaves to return to the coast (T: 235, 300-301), but also goes home via the West Indies on an American slave-ship (T: 334-336), thus involuntarily redrawing the horrors of the Atlantic triangular trade (Juengel, 2006: 22). On the other hand, Park’s narrative also reveals how appalled he is by the suffering caused by slavery (Bode, 2009: 191; Marsters, 2000: 15). He illustrates the bad condition of slaves tied by their necks with thongs and gives personal accounts of their ill-treatment by the slavers, often leading to an early death (T: 176, 217, 296, 308-310). Moreover, Park shows compassion with the hardship slaves experience when leaving their country and voices their horror of Europeans shipping them “for the purpose of devouring them” (T: 296, 330-331). However, he refrains from offering a direct personal judgement on the matter (Marsters, 2000: 25).

21When Travels was published, the movement for abolition was gaining ground. Its proponents argued that the slave trade brought misery to Africans and withheld the advancement of civilisation. Instead, they contended that stopping the slave trade “would create a demand for wage labour, encourage the spread of the money economy and enlarge the market for imported European manufactures” (Waites, 2002: XVI). The African Association itself was divided on the case (Bode, 2009: 167; Marsters, 2000: 13): Henry Beaufoy, secretary of the Association when Park left for Africa, was an abolitionist, whereas Bryan Edwards, his successor, who assisted the explorer in the compilation of his Travels, was a former West Indian plantation owner and supporter of the slave trade. Both sides of the debate, abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, later widely quoted from Park’s travelogue. While the facts offered in the narrative were regularly referred to by the opponents of the trade, his opinions, voiced in the separate chapter twenty-three, were taken up by the slave traders (Bode, 2009: 192; Marsters, 2000: 14). In these observations concerning the state and origins of “Slavery in Africa” (T: 279-290), Park deduces that the institution of slavery in Africa constitutes an economic necessity to the region and that the abolition of the transatlantic slave traffic would hardly affect slavery on the continent (Ayandele, 1971: 18; Haddad, 2001: 131; Marsters, 2000: 14). With respect to the comments on commerce in Western Africa, Park thus does not promote the continent solely as a market, as delineated by Pratt (68-69), but predominantly as a commodity. All in all, the economic dimensions permeating the Travels prove another argument for the British conquest of Africa in the dawning nineteenth century.

Promotion of Colonial Exploitation in Africa

22Over the years, Park cost the association over £ 1,300 (Marsters, 2000: 10), which, considering the gain expected through trade, constitutes a small amount of opportunity costs. With the first voyage and his travelogue, Park, according to the African Association, had opened a gate for

every commercial nation to enter and trade from the west to the eastern extremity of Africa […]. On due directions and exertions of British credit and enterprise, it is difficult to imagine the possible extent to which the demand for our country’s manufactures might arrive, from such vast and populous countries. (Qtd. in Pratt, 2010: 70)

23In the year of the successful publication of the Travels, a memorandum by Joseph Banks for the Privy Council for Trades and Plantations proposed a plan for a military expedition to secure the British Crown of the Western coast and access to the Niger (Marsters, 2000: 16). Hence, the peaceful, civilised and scientific focus of the association finally transformed into an imperialistic, namely economic and missionary goal, supported by military force (Marsters, 2000: 16). Also, Park, on his return to Africa, proved to be a more pronounced coloniser (Haddad, 2001: 143). Already towards the end of his Travels, Park explains how literary education and Christianisation would benefit the area in transforming the country into a civilised state proffering greater economic rewards for Europeans (T: 293-294; Ayandele, 1971: 10; Wise, 2001: 186). On the second voyage, he diligently distributed copies of the New Testament, thus committing to Britain’s civilising mission (Bode, 2009: 182; Haddad, 2001: 139; Marsters, 2000: 15). This, however, constitutes the most “non-reciprocal non-exchange of all time” (Pratt, 2010: 83).

24After Park’s death on the Niger in December 1805, explorations into the continent continued due to the lure of wealth in Africa. Timbuktu stood at the centre of interest, with its fabled immeasurable riches, a synecdoche implying ownership of the whole continent (Marsters, 2000: 10; Pratt, 2010: 68; Wise, 2001: 175). On the other hand, there remained the full exploration of the Niger River, which still offered hope of an inland waterway for trade (Marsters, 2000: 10). Wise argues: “the real scramble was always for the Niger River […] which was hypothesized as a superhighway for trade and commerce” (Wise, 2000: 176). Actually, at the Berlin Conference in 1885, the starting point of the Scramble for Africa, the European powers declared free navigation—and thus free trade—on the Niger. Although Park’s journey did not show immediate commercial results, his expedition and travel narrative consequently prepared the way for future geographical and economic explorations of Western Africa.

25This paper, with its focus on the economic dimensions of Mungo Park’s travelogue, has demonstrated that the empire of knowledge in colonial travel writing is intrinsically connected to the empire of trade. From the beginning, the “geographical missionaries” (Ayandele, 1971: 2) or “economic expansionists” (Pratt, 2010: 68) of the African Association were dedicated to boosting opportunities of British trade in Africa through the advancement of geographical knowledge. The publication and dissemination of travel literature was instrumental not only in familiarising the domestic readership with the exotic, but even more so in promoting the colonialist venture abroad. Because commercial and imperialist intentions are thus at the very heart of sentimental travel writing, Park’s travelogue does not necessarily conform to the concept of pure reciprocity as argued by Mary Pratt. Without any form of mystification, the Travels lays bare the economic background of Park’s exploration in his personal dependence on exchange and his description of Africa as a market and source of exploitation, suggesting further intervention on the continent as a civilising mission for the advancement of trade. With Park’s account on the new sources of wealth and new channels of commerce, commercial interests had been complemented by notions of civilisation and Christianity—the “three Cs” of late nineteenth-century New Imperialism. Exactly one hundred years after the publication of Travels in the Interior of Africa, having read Park as a young boy (Marsters, 2000: 5), Joseph Conrad, in his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, tells the journey of the protagonist Marlow who travels along the coast of Western Africa and inland along the Congo River giving an account of the futility of imperialism as a “merry dance of death and trade” (Conrad, 2008: 115).



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HADDAD E. A. (2001): “Body and Belonging(s): Property in the Captivity of Mungo Park,” Colonial and Post-Colonial Incarceration, ed. Graeme Harper, New York, Continuum, 124-143.

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MARSTERS K. F. (2000): Introduction to Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, by Mungo Park, ed. Kate F. Marsters, Durham: Duke University Press, 1-28.

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PARK, M. (1805): “Mungo Park’s Letter Journal to 2nd Earl Camden: An Account of His Transactions from his Embarkation from England to his Arrival at Kayee on the Gambia during His Last Expedition, with Remarks on Trade and Customs,” Empire Online, (accessed 1 June 2014).

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WITHERS C. W. J. (2004): “Memory and the History of Geographical Knowledge: The Commemoration of Mungo Park, African Explorer,” Journal of Historical Geography 30.2, 316-339.

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WITHERS C. W. J. (2010): “Geography, Enlightenment and the Book: Authorship and Audience in Mungo Park’s African Texts,” Geographies of the Book, ed. M.J. Ogborn and C.W.J. Withers, Farnham, Ashgate, 2010, p. 119-220.


1 In 1788, American John Ledyard tried to travel to the Niger from Cairo but accidentally poisoned himself before he set out. At the same time, English Simon Lucas approached the river from Tripoli but had to abort the mission due to tribal wars. Irish Major Daniel Houghton went by way of the Gambia in 1790 but was supposed to have been killed in the desert, a fate Mungo Park confirmed during his travels. The only written report about the interior of Africa was Leo Africanus’s Description of Africa (1550).

2 The following references to Mungo Park’s Travels will be abbreviated as T.

3 On the complex and dynamic interplay of author, publishers, and readers with regard to Park’s travelogues as well as contemporary and historical receptions of Park see the articles by Charles W.J. Withers in the bibliography.

4 In 1803, Park was invited to lead a second expedition from the Gambia to the Niger. Setting off in 1805, his company was joined by Lieutenant Martyn, thirty-five privateers, and two seamen. The expedition proved a disaster: most of the people had died of dysentery before they reached the river. Shortly after their ship set sail downstream from Sansanding, they were attacked at the Bussa rapids, and the explorer and his remaining companions drowned.


Universität Passau

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